Discrimination against older workers will remain ‘rife’ without intervention, experts warn

Government criticised for ‘disappointing’ response to parliamentary report on support for an ageing workforce

Experts have criticised the government’s response to a parliamentary committee’s report on older workers, labelling it "disappointing" and bemoaning a lack of clearly defined action to increase support for an ageing workforce.

In its response to the report Older People And Employment, which was published by the women and equalities committee in July, the government said it was committed to ensuring older workers benefited from employment in later life, but would not propose legislation to guarantee flexible working opportunities, or increase specific enforcement against discrimination in recruitment practices. 

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) indicated at the beginning of October that the government may propose imposing duties on employers to consider flexible working policies. However, Friday’s report indicated a voluntary approach ahead of a review in 2019, rather than requiring all jobs to be advertised as flexible. 

The government added it would be ‘inappropriate’ to take enforcement action on supporting older workers, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would be addressing this in a separate response at a later date. 

The chair of the women and equalities committee, Maria Miller MP, said the lack of collaboration in tackling this issue was "disappointing". 

“Without effective intervention from the government and EHRC, we cannot see how discriminatory practices against older people in employment, that we know are rife, will be tackled,” she said. “That’s why I find the responses we have received disappointing, as we had hoped they would have worked together to agree specific enforcement actions across both the public and private sectors.” 

Duncan Brown, head of HR consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), agreed that a clear statutory framework was important in taking steps to support older workers. 

“The research that we have conducted [...] demonstrates the effects of a comprehensive and joined-up approach inside the employer, incorporating areas commonly ignored even by good employers, such as talent management and flexible working,” he told People Management

“Our research also suggests that joint involvement of employers and government is important, in order that there is a clear statutory framework and support available."

The women and equalities committee called on the EHRC to protect older workers from outdated stereotypes and age discrimination in the recruitment process through a robust strategy to enforce the Equality Act 2010. 

In a response printed in the report, the EHRC said it was not in a position to develop enforcement actions targeting specific protected characteristics, but would take into account the views of the committee when considering its priorities in supporting older workers. 

“We have taken, and will continue to take, robust enforcement action, using all of our statutory powers, to tackle unlawful discrimination and ensure that no-one is excluded from the workplace. This includes enabling Britain’s employers to benefit from the talent and contributions of workers of all ages,” a spokesperson told People Management

They continued: “The right to request flexible working should apply from day one in all jobs and we have stressed the need for employers to make their workplaces accessible for everyone, including older people, parents and carers.

“We have also sought to tackle bias in recruitment by taking action against discriminatory adverts that request characteristics or terms that are associated with a particular age group.” 

Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he felt the government’s response was positive, but looked forward to "concrete steps" on flexible working, retraining and occupational health reform.

“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) [which is collaborating with REC to tackle age discrimination] clearly recognises the importance of the issue, but a more joined-up approach to helping older workers is needed across the whole government and beyond,” he said. 

“With a rising state pension age and looming skills and labour shortages, we need strong action now.”